The loose remake Guess Who reverses the races, so now black loan officer Percy Jones (Bernie Mac) bristles at his daughter's "pigmentally challenged" boyfriend, Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher).
This is progress? Tracy got the Oscar-winning, barrier-breaking Poitier, playing a character who resembled a cross between Albert Schweitzer and Nelson Mandela. Mac gets the guy from "That '70s Show" and "Punk'd." If I were Mac, I'd be mad, too.
The distance between the two movies proves that social progress doesn't guarantee artistic advancement. Despite its multiple Oscar wins and groundbreaking subject matter for the time, the original Guess Who's Coming to Dinner remains a film more famous than actually liked. Director Stanley Kramer specialized in self-important "issues" movies like Judgment at Nuremberg, and he even handcuffed Poitier to Tony Curtis in his earlier treatment of race relations, The Defiant Ones. In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Kramer cares much more about lectures than laughs.
Mixed marriage might not be as loaded an issue in America now as then. But in the new film, Kevin Rodney Sullivan (director of Barbershop 2 and How Stella Got Her Groove Back), soft-pedals racial tensions to the point where Guess Who becomes little more than a rip-off of Meet the Parents. Mac even takes a "These eyes see everything" line practically out of Robert De Niro's mouth. The original may be fatally stodgy, but better a film that tries too hard to say something than one that tries so hard to say nothing.
Each begins with virtually the same hook. A well-off family's pretty daughter (Katharine Houghton as Joey in 1967; Zoe Saldana as Theresa in 2005) introduces her new beau to the folks - without having tipped them off about his race. When prospective mother-in-law Christina (Katharine Hepburn) first lays eyes on Poitier, she can't disguise her shock: The film directly confronts white liberals who lose their oh-so-tolerant colorblindness when their daughter's love life is involved.
The remake turns the introduction into a mistaken-identity gag. Percy takes Simon for a cab driver and the black cabbie for the boyfriend, then draws out an amusingly stunned reaction shot when Theresa informs him of his error.
Guess Who relies almost solely on situations in which Percy has slow burns while Simon fumbles with Ben Stiller-style embarrassment. After catching Simon playfully manhandling Theresa (while wearing some of her lingerie), her father forces Simon to sleep in the basement - in the same bed as Percy. Metaphor for reluctant racial togetherness, or fatally bogus comedic contrivance?
In only one scene does Guess Who make a point of tapping into American racial awkwardness. At the dinner table, Percy essentially goads Simon into making racial jokes, which Simon does out of a liberal pretext to "take their power away." I saw Guess Who at a mostly full screening where the audience was about equally white and black, and a fascinating tension filled the room, as if the audience was eager to hear the gags, but with hackles pre-emptively raised, in case they proved genuinely offensive.
With race such a charged issue in America, Guess Who could have taken far more comic advantage over such conflicts. Cedric the Entertainer's Civil Rights rants in Barbershop have more to do with racial realities than anything in Guess Who. But "bringing home a white boy" proves to be little more than a social gaffe on par with dating someone who has a slightly embarrassing occupation, like a proctologist or rodeo clown.
Granted, the stakes were much higher in 1967, and a character in the original movie points out that if John and Joey marry, "In 16 or 17 states you'll be breaking the law - you'll be criminals." The couple deals not only with dirty looks from liberal whites, but vocal opposition from blacks, and John lashes out at his own father's de facto support of racial separation. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner becomes almost sickeningly condescending, though, when privileged Joey scolds the family's disapproving maid ("The Jeffersons'" Isabel Sanford) about racial tolerance: "Tillie, I've always loved you, and you're just as black as he is!"
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner coasts on the star power of Poitier, Hepburn and Tracy, the latter of whom died 10 days after filming, which doubtless helped his longtime love Hepburn win the Oscar. The cast never transcends the film's self-congratulatory tone, emphasized by the soundtrack's incessant and totally square renditions of "The Glory of Love" (which might as well have been sung by the Whitey Whiterson Chorus). Compare that to Bernie Mac winning us over by crooning Lou Rawls' "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" with effortless cool. Mac's got something otherwise lacking from either film: a little bit of soul.